Healing from childhood sexual abuse can be a confusing process, particularly if you cannot remember the abuse. Perhaps you're not even sure where to start, or whether you should even be considering this aspect of trauma.
Memories of childhood sexual abuse can be repressed as a way of coping with the trauma, making it challenging to acknowledge and address the impact of the abuse and even harder to heal. We can only heal when we know what we need to heal from, and where the abuse has been repressed from memory it often only becomes an issue after many decades of encountering physical, relational and emotional challenges.
Even if you cannot consciously remember the abuse or what happened to you, its effects are still be present in your life, such as through emotional and behavioural patterns or somatic and physical symptoms. You may notice it in your dreams, relationships, family life or as you examine your deeper belief systems and why they exist. Most people do experience some form of somatic imprinting which in my clinical experience can be more vague and subtle especially if the abuse occurred in preverbal stages i.e below the age of 2.
If you are experiencing symptoms please check my guide for how to identify if your body is holding childhood sexual abuse. It contains over 100 items that you can check against. You can find that here.
Healing from childhood sexual abuse involves not only acknowledging and addressing the impact of the abuse but also developing strategies to cope with the associated emotions and symptoms.
Please take a moment to read and share this information with anyone you feel may benefit. This could be a friend, partner or relative. It might even be a client of yours.
By sharing this information, you have the potential to positively impact someone's life and even their family's well-being. If after reading this, you're ready to heal from the effects of abuse on your body, heart and life then please reach out to me.
In this blog post I explore:
Why our brain represses memories of childhood sexual trauma and abuse
How our brain creates and retrieves memories and why this is important for the healing modality we engage in
How the brain blocks out traumatic memories from childhood
The different ways we actually experience this memory repression i.e How Repressed Memory Shows Up
What factors affect our ability to recall memories of childhood sexual abuse and why this makes it even harder for survivors to get clarity
My Clinical Observations: What Makes It Harder To Retrieve Memories of Sexual Abuse
What are flashbacks are and how to deal with them
The importance of our somatic world when it comes to piecing together missing memories
Why Childhood Sexual Abuse is So Hard to Talk About
How I help my clients heal when they have no memory of the abuse
10 blog post and podcast recommendations to read and share
1/Why our brain represses memories of childhood sexual abuse
In short, to protect the nervous system from total overwhelm, shock and shut down.
Childhood sexual abuse is an extremely traumatic experience even if it doesn't involve explicit physical violence or injury. It is a deep betrayal of the body, the sense of safety and boundaries and the feeling of being sovereign over one's own body. This can trigger huge overwhelm in a child nervous system - usually shock and fear. This emotional charge for a child, is too much to process and contain, and so it gets shut down, to keep the child alive and keep their psyche in tact. The brain is trying to protect from further emotional pain and distress that could make it difficult to function. In this sense, dissociation and repression is a big defence mechanism. It is the only way the inner child could cope and continue with any sense of normality. Dissociation can occur as a coping mechanism in response to any overwhelming experience, but it is very common where there have been incidents of childhood sexual abuse.
2/How our brain creates and retrieves memories of sexual abuse
The process of memory formation and retrieval in the brain involves a complex set of neural mechanisms. Notice, the primary input is sensory i.e SENSATION- which is felt through the body. This is why somatic therapy is so important to healing childhood sexual trauma, because without it, you get lost in a sea of numbness or overwhelming and confusing sensations.
Encoding: Memory formation begins with the process called encoding, in which sensory information is translated into a neural code that can be stored in the brain. This involves the activation of neurons in the hippocampus, which is critical for the formation of new memories. Research has shown that individuals with a history of childhood abuse or other types of trauma may have a smaller hippocampus compared to individuals without such experience. Furthermore, trauma-related changes in the hippocampus have been linked to difficulties with memory and emotion regulation. For example, individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been found to have reduced hippocampal volume, which is associated with impairments in memory and emotional regulation (Bremner et al., 1995; Gurvits et al., 1996).
Consolidation: After encoding, memories undergo a process of consolidation, in which they are stabilized and integrated into long-term memory storage. This process involves the strengthening of synaptic connections between neurons and the activation of gene expression patterns that support the long-term maintenance of memories. This is particularly relevant in survivors of childhood sexual abuse because a) it is not usually a one off event, it is usually a process of grooming and repeated exploitations in childhood and also later in life where it can repeat during adulthood b) the genetic component is key because sexual abuse nearly always has an ancestral component, i.e if you trace the abuse back, it was happening in previous generations.
Retrieval: When we want to recall a memory, our brain engages in the process of retrieval, in which the stored memory is reactivated and brought back into conscious awareness. This process involves the activation of neural networks associated with the memory, including regions of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex is compromised in cases of trauma as well as ADHD and autism. This makes it harder to actually bring the memory to conscious awareness. It is like having a blanket over your brain, you draw a blank or feel like you have nothing 'real' to make sense of...and yet you feel the memory in your body, in your energy field, at some level inside you, it calls you to uncover it. Memory retrieval is even more difficult when our emotional state is heightened, and when we struggle with attention / presence / focus. Both are common in survivors of sexual abuse. It can be incredibly hard to recall memories when the nervous system is highly dysregulated and when we are in a state of chronic stress or fear. There is also the issue of context: it is harder to recall a memory when you're not in the same environment it was formed. Usually, clients that I work with have spent 3 or 4 decades trying to figure out what happened to them, until they come to work with me to heal their childhood sexual trauma. This does require to a regression energetically, to. the inner child and the vibrational landscape that the abuse took place in. This requires a real courage and willingness to get to the truth, once and for all. It is very confronting but the truth sets you free.
3/How the Brain Blocks Out Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) can trigger a complex set of psychological and physiological responses, including memory fragmentation, suppression, and dissociation. Studies have shown that traumatic memories can be stored differently in the brain than non-traumatic memories, with the former often being fragmented and disorganized.
One study found that survivors of CSA had more fragmented and disorganized autobiographical memory than individuals who had not experienced trauma (Brewin et al., 1999). The study also found that the degree of memory fragmentation was related to the severity of the abuse, suggesting that more severe abuse may result in greater fragmentation of memories.
Another study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying memory suppression in survivors of CSA (Kark et al., 2019). The study found that survivors of CSA showed increased activation in the prefrontal cortex and decreased activation in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory encoding and retrieval, during memory suppression tasks. The authors suggested that this pattern of activation may reflect an attempt to consciously control the retrieval of traumatic memories.
Dissociation, another common response to CSA, involves a disconnection between different parts of the brain, such as the emotional and cognitive centers. A study using fMRI found that dissociation was associated with altered functional connectivity between brain regions involved in emotion regulation and attentional control (Lanius et al., 2010). The study also found that the degree of dissociation was related to the severity of the abuse, suggesting that dissociation may be an adaptive response to overwhelming trauma.
The degree of dissociation is related to the severity of the abuse, suggesting that dissociation may be an adaptive response to overwhelming trauma such as childhood sexual abuse.
Overall, these studies suggest that memory fragmentation, suppression, and dissociation in survivors of CSA involve complex neurobiological mechanisms. The effects of CSA on memory processing and emotional regulation may be related to alterations in brain structure and function, as well as the severity and duration of the abuse.
4/Factors that affect our Ability to recall Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse
The suppression of memories in childhood sexual abuse survivors is a complex process, and different factors can contribute to it. For example, the age of the child at the time of the abuse, the frequency and duration of the abuse, and the relationship between the abuser and the child can all affect the degree to which memories are suppressed.
Our emotional state: Emotional states can influence our ability to retrieve memories. Studies have shown that emotionally charged events are more likely to be remembered than neutral events (Cahill & McGaugh, 1998). Additionally, memories may be more easily retrieved when our current emotional state matches the emotional state at the time of the memory's encoding (Bower, 1981).
Our somatic attention: Attention plays a critical role in memory retrieval. If we do not attend to information at the time of encoding, it is less likely to be remembered later. This is very hard to do when the time of encoding was traumatic. For example, studies have shown that divided attention during encoding can impair memory retrieval (Craik, Govoni, Naveh-Benjamin, & Anderson, 1996).
The context: The context in which a memory is encoded can influence our ability to retrieve it later. For example, studies have shown that memories may be more easily retrieved when we are in the same physical or psychological context as when the memory was formed (Godden & Baddeley, 1975).
Aging: As we age, our ability to retrieve memories can decline. Studies have shown that older adults may have more difficulty retrieving memories than younger adults (Craik & McDowd, 1987). I'd say the average age of a client that comes to heal in my programmes from childhood sexual abuse is around 40.
Trauma: Traumatic events can influence our ability to retrieve memories. Studies have shown that individuals who have experienced trauma may have difficulty retrieving memories related to the traumatic event (Bremner, Krystal, Charney, & Southwick, 1996). People who have endured childhood sexual abuse often have also been through other traumatic events in their lives, whether it be chronic health issues, relationship troubles, experiences of rape and abuse as adults or domestic violence. This makes it even harder because the childhood memory is buried under other layers of of trauma. I have specific ways of working with this in my practice to help my clients get to the truth in a safe and effective way whilst also healing their adult trauma and chronic health problems.
Our sleep patterns: Sleep can play a critical role in memory consolidation and retrieval. Studies have shown that memories may be more easily retrieved after a period of sleep (Stickgold, 2005). However, survivors of childhood sexual trauma often suffer with insomnia, disrupted sleep, nightmares and sleep paralysis.
5/ Healing Observations: Common Factors that Make It Harder To Retrieve Memories of Sexual Abuse
Fear of what you will discover
Fear that your life will get worse when you know the truth
Fear of there being a consequence to speaking the truth
Fear of saying it out loud and having to accept it happened
Fear of feeling different once you know
Fear of 'never being able to get over it' once you know
Fear of seeing things that disgust you
Fear of not being able to 'unsee' or having permanent flashbacks (this doesn't happen once the imprint is integrated and healed)
Fear of there being more memories of other types of abuse that may be buried beneath the memory of sexual abuse e.g other perpetrators involved, more events
The abuse happening at a pre verbal stage i.e under the age of 2
Abuse happening during sleep
Abuse was normalised and woven into love and play, so unravelling the abuse also means unravelling any sense of love / innocence
6/ Different Levels of Memory Block Exist in Childhood Sexual Trauma
The terminology used to describe repressed memories has changed over time. You may have heard of dissociation, dissociative amnesia, engrams, splitting, body memories, somatic memory, imprinting etc. There are many different ways that the memory is affected, it's not just a total blank or no memory. Here are the different ways that clients I support to heal CSA often experience their repressed memory of childhood sexual trauma. They are ordered from most severe repression to less severe suppression. First, let's talk about the difference between repression and suppression.
Repression and suppression are two related but distinct psychological concepts.
Repression refers to the unconscious blocking of unpleasant memories, thoughts, or emotions from entering conscious awareness. These repressed memories or emotions are stored in the unconscious mind and may resurface later in life as flashbacks, dreams, or other psychological symptoms. Repression is often seen as a defense mechanism that the mind uses to protect itself from overwhelming psychological pain or trauma.
Suppression, on the other hand, refers to a conscious effort to block out or push away unpleasant thoughts or emotions. Unlike repression, which is unconscious, suppression is a deliberate act of will. People may use suppression as a coping mechanism to deal with difficult emotions or situations, such as when they need to focus on a task or remain calm in a stressful situation.
Repression involves the unconscious blocking of unpleasant thoughts or emotions, while suppression involves a conscious effort to push them away. Both are defense mechanisms that the mind may use to protect itself from psychological pain or trauma.
Zero memory of any event(s) of abuse but also many missing childhood memories and blanks in childhood. Often clients who experienced CSA at an early age will say they have no real memories of their childhood until age 6/7.
The memory is abstract and highly fragmented. It includes archetypal images which seem surreal and made up. The people involved are 'characters' or 'cartoons' and it feels like a dream. At these early stages of awareness there will be alot of unprocessed emotion that is difficult to even feel and sexual abuse may not have crossed your mind at all. You are probably seeking solutions for your physical health or maybe for your emotional challenges.
One or two fleeting memories of 'something happened' but there's very little detail and no awareness of who was involved. The memory is usually connected to a place or objects or your own body (i.e you can see your body parts of their body parts e.g hands, genitals, mouth) but there is very little information available and visuals are sparse. The images don't seem to form a coherent memory.
Your memory of what happened is fragmented but has been pieced back together through your constant reflections and rumination trying to understand why you feel the way you do i.e there's a knowledge of what happened that has been created based on having to piece together other events, other imprints and things that happened including conversations and other people's reactions. An example of this is feeling like something must have happened because at a certain age you remember being told not to tell anyone, you also remember trying to tell a parent or teacher or friend and being shut down or blamed. This is also common.
There's a memory of something happening to you but it feels surreal and hard to grasp. You have to some degree the ability to think about this but when it comes to who was involved you find yourself clutching at straws within yourself. This is where memory can be distorted, i.e you can imagine it was a specific person to avoid facing who it really was. The most common distortion is that the sexual abuse was by a stranger, a one off event. In reality this is rarely the case (although of course it can happen). This is the way the psyche protects itself from the truth of the abuser. In my course on Healing Childhood Sexual abuse I go into detail on how to heal all the deeper feelings that come up around the abuser particularly if it was a close family member or trusted adult.
A memory in the form of images is available. The memory relates to abuse that occured and the person is aware of what happened to some degree, and who was involved however, there is no emotional connection to the experiences and it doesn't arise in the physical body in a way that can be made sense of (however it will create somatic symptoms).
The memory of what happened is partially available. You are aware of what happened and maybe even where you were (although the latter is often obscured by the psyche or described as a 'dark room, dark basement, cupboard etc'. This is because the imprints of the abuse vibrate in the shadow where it is literally dark and hard to see.
The memory is fully available, you know exactly what happened and who was involved. You know how often it was going on, what was done and where you were. You cannot recall any emotions around this experience.
The memory is fully available, you know exactly what happened and who was involved. You know how often it was going on, what was done and where you were. You feel the emotions of this experience in your body, your womb, your root space and your spine to some degree. Click here to read more about what it actually feels like to hold childhood sexual abuse in your body.
Watch Now: Unveiling the Crucial Role of the Sacrum in Healing Childhood Sexual Trauma
Book a consultation call with me for a personalised treatment plan and guidance on your healing path forward.
7/Dealing with Flashbacks of Childhood Sexual Abuse
Flashbacks refer to the sudden and vivid recollection of a traumatic event, such as childhood sexual abuse, that can occur in the present moment. They feel like imprints that come out of nowhere at random times. They can be triggered by sensory experiences or thoughts as well as stress, fatigue and other layers of trauma. Flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse often take place during sexual experiences, in the shower or bath or around young children. This can be particularly disturbing and frightening.
In the context of childhood sexual abuse, survivors may experience flashbacks as a result of triggers such as certain smells, sounds, or sensations that are associated with the abuse. Flashbacks can be accompanied by intense emotions and physical sensations, such as fear, panic, or a racing heartbeat, and can feel overwhelming for the survivor.
Flashbacks are different from ordinary memories because they can feel as though the traumatic event is happening again in the present moment. This can make it challenging to distinguish between the past and the present, and to feel grounded and safe in the present moment. There is often a feeling of having been invaded or attacked by something external - this is common when people have gone through childhood sexual abuse and haven't yet healed the trauma held in their body.
It is important for survivors of childhood sexual abuse who experience flashbacks to seek support from trained professionals who can help them process and cope with the associated emotions and sensations.
Here are a few examples of flashbacks that a survivor of childhood sexual abuse may experience:
A survivor of CSA may be triggered by a certain smell, such as the smell of cologne or perfume that their abuser wore during the abuse. This smell can cause them to have a vivid flashback of the traumatic event, which can feel as though they are reliving the experience.
A survivor may be triggered by a particular sound, such as the sound of a door closing or a particular song that was playing during the abuse. This sound can cause them to have a flashback that feels overwhelming and disorienting.
A survivor may experience physical sensations that trigger a flashback, such as feeling a certain texture or temperature. For example, if their abuser used a particular type of fabric during the abuse, touching or seeing that fabric may trigger a flashback.
A survivor may have a flashback triggered by a thought or image associated with the abuse, such as a specific body part or a particular gesture made by the abuser.
These flashbacks can be distressing and overwhelming for the survivor, and can interfere with their ability to function in their daily lives. They can also be very cryptic and difficult to interpret which makes it even harder to understand why it's coming up. ! Dealing with flashbacks of abuse can be challenging, but there are several strategies that can be helpful in coping with this symptom.
Here are a few suggestions:
Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and feelings related to the flashback can be a helpful way to process the experience and reduce its intensity. You can also use journaling to identify triggers that may be contributing to the flashbacks and to develop strategies for managing these triggers.
Body mapping: Body mapping involves drawing or tracing your body and marking areas where you experience physical sensations related to the flashback. This can help you become more aware of how the flashback is affecting your body and can be used as a tool for grounding yourself during the experience.
Somatic Therapy: Working with a trained somatic therapist and healer who specializes in sexual trauma can be an effective way to address flashbacks and other symptoms of abuse.
The importance of our Somatic Sensations when it comes to Piecing Together Missing Memories (Press Play)
Listen: Why Childhood Sexual Abuse is So Hard to Talk About
If you or someone you know has been impacted by childhood sexual abuse, it can be difficult to find the words to express what you have experienced. In my latest podcast episode, "Why Childhood Sexual Abuse is So Hard to Talk About", I explore the reasons why survivors may struggle to share their truth, and offer insights and strategies for healing. Don't miss out on this important conversation.
Click play to listen now or save it to a playlist and listen later.
How I Support My Clients to Heal Childhood Sexual Trauma When there is No Memory
When there's no specific memory, just sensations in the body or imprints in the energy field that give rise to an impression of sexual abuse it can be confusing and make you doubt yourself ALOT. It's very normal to think you're inventing things or making it up, or to shame yourself for the fact it's even crossing your mind.
I have developed a specific approach to support my clients to heal that has helped thousands of people around the world.
The key to this approach is to start deepening interoception, i.e your ability to feel and interpret the sensations held in your nervous system, womb and genitals. The sensations are vibrational patterns that carry information. I help you to make sense of these patterns of information and piece them together rapidly, so that you can get a crystal clear picture (including seeing, feeling, knowing) of what happened and who was involved. When I do this work with my clients there is no doubt as to what has happened to them, they learn to trust their somatic memory as we deepen the process of healing and connecting to the body. This is a powerful journey that helps them to trust their body again, particularly where they have been dissociated and shut out from it because of the pain and fear it was holding.
This work requires first, structural integration of the spine and organs, particularly the kidneys, adrenals and the gut. That's because these organs hold alot of unprocessed emotions and stress and we need to get beneath the surface level patterns and stresses of adult life to go deeper into the child's nervous system.
Where the child's nervous system has been dissociated and is split, it will still vibrate in the field. This is why survivors of CSA often experience projection, because they cannot easily feel their own pain but it is being felt in other indirect ways and by those around them, usually their partners and children.
By reintegrating the inner child's nervous system the clarity around the abusive incidents is allowed to come through into the consciousness of the person. Because the organs have been cleared and the structure (spine, brain) has been aligned, the body can hold the awareness more safely and therefore doesn't have to dissociate. This is because the nervous system is more grounded and the energy field is more still. The heart is available to process the pain of what happened.
Are you Ready to Reclaim Your Future & Heal From Childhood Sexual Trauma?
If you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, you may be dealing with the impact of trauma, which can be a complex and challenging process. It can hold you back in life, making it feel impossible to fulfill your true potential.
That's why I want to invite you to join my 2-month masterclass on healing childhood sexual abuse. Using a somatic and energetic approach, this course provides practical tools and techniques to manage the
impact of trauma on your life. Through evidence-based approaches such as journaling, body mapping, and therapy, you will learn how to identify and manage triggers, regulate your emotions, and develop a sense of safety and empowerment.
This course is designed to provide a safe and supportive environment for you to connect with others who have experienced similar challenges and receive guidance and support from trained professionals who specialize in trauma-informed care. If you are ready to take the first step towards healing and recovery, I encourage you to join my course on healing childhood sexual abuse.
If you're interested in 1-1 healing please book a clarity call with me.
More Blog Posts on Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse. Read and Share:
10 Podcasts for Healing Childhood Sexual Trauma including Somatic Practices: Read and Share
Guided womb meditation
14 mins guided practice to release pelvic floor tension
Why childhood sexual abuse is so hard to talk about
Recognising unhealed trauma
PS: If you've found this article helpful please take a moment to read and share this information with anyone else you feel may benefit. This could be a friend, partner or relative. It might even be a client of yours.
By sharing this information and my online course, you have the potential to positively impact someone's life and even their family's well-being. If after reading this, you're ready to heal from the effects of abuse on your body, heart and life then please reach out to me.